The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes
Start Free Trial

Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written on the back of an envelope when the poet was only seventeen, looks back to the nineteenth century to echo the celebratory exuberance of Walt Whitman. The poem’s voice is reminiscent of the all-encompassing first-person “I” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in that it refers to both personal and collective experience. The speaker’s “I” spans time and space:

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The poem alludes to both the nightmare of slavery and the celebratory aspects of the Black experience, containing only passing references to both forced migration and euphoria:

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans. . . .

These lines contain mostly positive, comforting images, even if what is behind them is not. The speaker never directly describes the experience of being pulled from “sleep” in a restful hut to face the horror of diaspora and enslavement on another continent—this event is only alluded to. Likewise, the Israelite experience of slavery and deliverance in Egypt, often a model for Black hopes of freedom, hovers behind the seemingly benign and pleasant images of the Nile and the pyramids. Finally, the imagery of “singing,” “the Mississippi,” “Abe Lincoln,” and “New Orleans,” while never directly mentioning the misery of slavery, does reference slavery indirectly in alluding to New Orleans slave markets, enslaved people singing mournfully en route to cotton or sugar plantations, and Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved people.

Homework Help

Latest answer posted February 28, 2010, 8:06 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Because these allusions operate below the surface, the speaker of this poem does not condemn racism or injustice outright but focuses on celebrating Black history and culture instead. In doing so, the speaker functions as a representation of all African-descended people and the rich history of their joys, sorrows, struggles, and achievements from the dawn of time onward. His declarations again recall those of Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. . . . (Whitman)

By the mid-1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Hughes’s poetry had turned more explicitly to condemning injustice. In “Let America Be America Again,” another poem with a Whitman-like title and scope, Hughes openly points toward the problems of not only the Black experience but also that of all oppressed Americans:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek. . . .

This speaker, like Whitman’s in “Song of Myself” and Hughes’s in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” identifies with more than one single self, but this time he does so in order to call explicit attention to injustice and to express solidarity with other marginalized groups. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” injustice is hinted at, but the tone remains largely positive. Today, a century after it was first published in the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, this brief poem is considered Hughes’s most famous work and the piece that sent its author on his way to becoming a chief figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Langston Hughes’s most anthologized poem. Hughes wrote this brief poem in fifteen minutes in July, 1920, while crossing the Mississippi on a train ride to visit his father in Mexico. It is one of Hughes’s earliest poems, and its subject established the emphasis of much of his subsequent poetry. Hughes’s poems may be divided into several categories: protest poems, social commentary, Harlem poems, folk poems, poems on African and negritude themes, and miscellaneous poetry on various other nonracial subjects and themes. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” centers on African and negritude themes. Hughes’s writing always shows an identification with Africa, and his later poetry on African subjects and African themes demonstrates his growing sophistication and knowledge of the history and problems of Africa. Along with its emphasis on African themes, this poem so poignantly and dramatically expresses what it means to be a Black American that it helps to assure Hughes’s continuing fame.

Through the images of the river, Hughes traces the history of the African American from Africa to America. The muddy Mississippi makes Hughes consider the roles that rivers have played in human history. The first three lines introduce the subject of the poem. The primary image of water symbolically represents the history of humanity, acknowledging the fact that rivers are more ancient in the history of the earth:

I’ve known rivers:I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of   human blood in human veins.

The next line connects the poet with the river and acknowledges the influence of waterways on the history of the African American: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This line is repeated at the end of the poem, reestablishing the connection between the human essence and the river as well as the river’s role in African American life.

The middle section reveals the connections between the history of the African American and four important rivers of the world: the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi. The three African rivers are a part of the ancient history of Black people when they were free, living in majestic kingdoms and forming the great civilizations of Africa. The poem more specifically relates to the African American, who is the victim of slavery and discrimination in the New World, where rivers were used to transport Black slaves.

The last section of the poem, “I’ve known rivers:/ Ancient, dusky, rivers// My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” re-emphasizes the beginning section by restating the influence of rivers on the soul and life of Black people from antiquity to the twentieth century. The final line of the poem repeats the statement that connects the human soul to the rivers of the world.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a lyric poem. Lyric poetry is rooted in song and establishes the ritual of the human condition, in this case the condition of Black people. In this poem, Hughes is both teller (poet) and participant (African American) in the drama being described. Through the intense images of this poem, the reader is able to participate in the emotion and poignancy of the history of Black people. Since Hughes discusses this history beyond that in America, he transcends localism and projects upon his reader a world experience.

The diction of the poem is simple and unaffected by rhetorical excess. It is eloquent in its simplicity, allowing readers of all ages and levels of sophistication to enjoy a first reading; however, as one reads this poem, the deeper meaning reveals itself.

The primary image of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is water; its function as the river of time is to trace the heritage and past of the African American. The flowing, lyrical lines, like water, are charged with meaning, describing what the river has meant to Black people in America. Hughes’s poetic ability and technical virtuosity are nowhere as evident as in this short poem, which formed the basis for his early acceptance as a brilliant poet. Hughes uses the repeated line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” to emphasize the way rivers symbolize not only the physical history of the African American but the spiritual history (“my soul”) as well. The river is also a symbol of the strength of Black people as survivors who move through history. Finally, the rivers reflect the direct path of Blacks to America.

The entire poem is based on an extended metaphor comparing the heritage of the African American to the great rivers of the world. The poet reveals the relationship between the river and the lives of Black people, starting with a river known to be important during the earliest great civilizations and ending with a river on which slaves were transported, to be bought and sold in the slave markets of America.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Langston Hughes was deeply concerned with the history and social condition of his people. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” reflects the poet’s interest in both topics. This poem also speaks of a mystic union of Blacks throughout the world, for it traces their history back to the creation of the world, giving them credit for spanning time and for founding the greatest civilizations that humanity has ever known.

Hughes received the inspiration for this poem as he crossed the Mississippi River by train, feeling melancholy yet drawing pride from thoughts of the rivers that played a part in the history of his race. The images of beauty and death, and of hope and despair, all fused in his adolescent sensibility, causing him to create one of his most beautiful poems. The use of words such as “soul” and “rivers” allows Hughes to touch the deepest feelings and spiritual longings of his own soul and the souls of his people. With the use of the words “deep,” “flow,” “dusky,” and “ancient,” Hughes describes the actual rivers that were involved in Black history, all the while emphasizing the long and glorious history of his race. With this poem, Hughes, often called “the poet of his people,” plunges into the deep well of African American history, uniting it with global African history.

The poem, with its allusions to the setting sun, human blood, and deep, dusky rivers, suffuses the images of death as it speaks of the immortality of the soul. Hughes celebrates the life of Black people by acknowledging death, but the images of death presented in the poem are overshadowed by emphasis on the life of the soul—in this case, a racial soul which runs throughout time like a river. As the muddy water of the Mississippi turns golden in the sunset, so does the poet turn the memory of the history and survival of his people into brilliance. With images of water and pyramid, the verse suggests the endurance of the Black physical presence and spirit from ancient Egypt to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The muddy Mississippi caused Hughes to think about the roles in human history played by the Congo, the Niger, and the Nile, as slaves were passed down these waters to be sold; once sold, these same slaves may have ended up being sold again on the Mississippi. The Mississippi also caused Hughes to think about Abraham Lincoln and the role he played in the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Pride in one’s history is a constant theme in the poem. Hughes views the history of Black people, even in slavery, with a sense of pride as he points out the ability of his people to survive their harsh and violent treatment in America. Hughes’s confidence in the strength of Blackness is a major part of his theme of pride; this confidence and pride is his legacy to African Americans. Black culture is still embattled, but Hughes provides a device for countering the argument that Black people are without a vital and universal history.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Characters

Next

Quotes